A kindergarten lesson in anxiety

Some parents say all-day sessions push children too hard

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Sarah Schweitzer
Globe Staff / May 25, 2008

Nancy Carey's daughter, Catrin, has a full schedule. The preschooler attends a dance class one afternoon a week, and a music class at Concord Conservatory of Music on another. One afternoon is reserved for a standing playdate at her grandmother's home, where they garden, bake, play cards, and read.

So when the Concord public schools announced that next year's kindergarten classes would be switching from part-day to full-day, Nancy Carey was alarmed. She worried that dismissal at 3:10 p.m., three hours later than the current time, would curtail Catrin's activities, not to mention her free playtime. She fretted that it would force additional, though not necessarily needed, instruction upon her 4-year-old daughter.

"Why does your child need to be there until 3 . . . if they have mastered their goals?" said Carey, a commercial bank lender turned stay-at-home mother who plans to pull her daughter out of the full-day kindergarten classes at 12:15 p.m. "Why shouldn't they be out doing other things?"

Governor Deval Patrick has championed the expansion of full-day kindergarten and this year has proposed pumping an additional $8.4 million into the program, to the delight of parents across the state. But in some communities - particularly wealthy ones where parents have the financial wherewithal to take time off from careers to care for young children - the move to full-day kindergarten is stirring an unexpected level of anxiety and anger.

A growing chorus of parents now say they want their children home more, and accuse school districts pushing full-day kindergarten of depriving them of quality time together. They say that those districts are meddling in the fundamentals of parenting, such as how much structure to build into young children's lives and how much time to leave unfettered.

Hingham school officials in recent weeks rolled out - very carefully - a full-day kindergarten proposal, not with a mere announcement, but with three town-hall style meetings to gather input. Officials say that discussion has been robust. In Weston, which will begin full-day kindergarten in the fall, many parents expressed concern about giving up afternoons with their children. In Lexington, it took school officials nearly a decade to convince parents of the merits of full-time kindergarten, and when they finally did this year, they felt compelled to include a small half-day class reserved for those parents who still can't brook the full day.

"Feelings run deep," said Lexington's superintendent, Paul Ash.

Nowhere has the issue been more fractious than in Concord. When the School Committee proposed the idea in November, more than 100 parents signed a petition protesting the move. They filed into meetings where kindergarten teachers and school officials explained that a full day would allow for a less rushed progression through the curriculum and more time for play. Parents retorted that academic studies showed mixed results for full-day kindergarten. One parent penned a letter to the School Committee, saying studies had shown that students who benefited from the program generally come from "at-risk communities."

"Concord is far from being an at-risk community. Full-day kindergarten is not warranted here in Concord according to the very research offered up by those designing the full-day program," Wanda Gleason wrote in the letter.

When the board approved a kindergarten program this winter for the following school year that involved three full days and two half days, many parents lamented that the decision came after the enrollment period for private kindergarten had closed. Others protested that one kindergarten class should be given over to an extended day schedule while the others remained half days.

"We did our best to listen to their concerns, and to address them," said Peter Fischelis, chairman of the Concord School Committee. "But school is not a Chinese menu where you can pick and choose."

Fischelis said that the number of parents planning early day pullouts this fall, when the full-day program will begin, has dwindled from several dozen to about 10. (Parents will be permitted to do so, but will have to pick up their children before lunch time, a favorite activity for students.) Even parents who plan to send their children for a full day next fall do not seem ready to acquiesce completely.

"I still have parents wanting to know what sort of metrics we're going to have in place," Fischelis said. "They want us to look at this as a business."

Concord is among a wave of communities embracing full-day kindergarten, across the state and nationally. Nine years ago, just 29 percent of the state's students attended full-time kindergarten; today it is 66 percent, according to the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. State law requires that a public school district provide at least 425 hours of kindergarten instruction annually.

State grant money is provided to select districts for full-time programs, but the grants only cover about 16 to 20 percent of the total cost, which leaves some towns struggling to pay for the programs. Some school districts charge tuition, while others have space for a limited number of full-time kindergarteners and must resort to a lottery system.

In sharp contrast to some wealthy suburbs, many working-class communities have given full-day kindergarten a decidedly warmer reception. Lotteries in these municipalities can set off a desperate scramble among parents, as one did recently in Fitchburg. The district this year opened its kindergarten program to all students, and parents, nearly universally, rejoiced.

"Parents were really anxious to have us expand," said Paula Giaquinto, the assistant superintendent of Fitchburg Public Schools.

Still, even for parents who see virtue in full-day kindergarten, the topic can be a difficult one. Educators say they are stunned, time and again, to hear parents express agony at the prospect of sending their little ones off for a full day, fearing the move could have ill effects for years to come.

"I have had some really bizarre conversations" about kindergarten, said Alice Barton, elementary school services supervisor at the state Department of Education. Kindergarten "represents the beginning of real school, and some parents get the sense that this is going to make or break my child's life."

Sharon McGregor, mother of a Concord preschooler, is one of those worried parents. This fall, McGregor, a conservation biologist who now stays home and makes sure her daughter has unstructured play time outdoors in the afternoons, plans to take her daughter out of kindergarten midday - at least for the first half of the school year.

"I really believe that children are rushed too quickly into pressured academics and asked to do too much at a young age," she said.

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